Do colleges â€œprefer boys over girlsâ€? The answer is yes, according to U.S. News and World Report. While more young woman than ever are applying for college admission, they are not as likely to be admitted to some selective liberal arts schools (Vassar, Pomona, Boston College), as these schools are hell-bent on keeping their student bodies â€œbalancedâ€ (equally men and women). As one college counselor says, â€œstudents care about the dating scene on campus,â€ so colleges have a â€œprerogativeâ€ to admit lesser-qualified men (instead of more, better-qualified women) to maintain this balance. Any takers?
The University of Richmond, like many small liberal arts colleges, has its roots in single-sex education. The campus, which sits on a picturesque 350 acres of woodland a few miles outside the Virginia state capital, was once two schools: Westhampton and Richmond Colleges, situated on opposite sides of a small lake. The campuses merged around the turn of the 20th century, creating the coed institution that exists today. Despiteâ€”and partly because ofâ€”its history, the delicate balance between men and women at Richmond has always been a tricky thing to manage.
These days, the student body is 49 percent male and 51 percent femaleâ€”a ratio that the college insists is determined by the availability of on-campus housing. Maintaining that equilibrium, however, has in the past few years meant rejecting many more female applicants than male ones. In practical terms, in the past decade, female applicants have faced an admissions rate that is an average 13 percentage points lower than that of their male peers just for the sake of keeping that girl-boy balance.
“From a philosophical standpoint, we’ve really discussed the benefits of keeping it about equal,” says Marilyn Hesser, a senior associate director of admissions at Richmond. “The board of trustees has said that the admissions office can go as far as 55-45 [women to men].” Male and female applicants to the school have test scores that are virtually the same, she says. “Was their [male applicants’] high school GPA a little lower? Perhaps.”
The University of Richmond is by no means unique in its challenge to keep the number of men and women enrolled roughly equal in the face of a dramatically changing pool of applicants. Nor is it the school where the gap in admissions rates is the most pronounced. Using undergraduate admissions rate data collected from more than 1,400 four-year colleges and universities that participate in the magazine’s rankings, U.S. News has found that over the past 10 years many schools are maintaining their gender balance by admitting men and women at sometimes drastically different rates.
The schools that are most competitiveâ€”Harvard, Duke, and Rice for exampleâ€”have so many applicants and so many high achievers that they naturally maintain balanced student bodies by skimming the cream of the crop. But in the tier of selective colleges just below them, maintaining gender equity on some campuses appears to require a thumb on the scale in favor of boys. It’s at these schools, including Pomona, Boston College, Wesleyan University, Tufts, and the College of William and Mary, that the gap in admit rates is particularly acute.
The reason for these lower admissions rates for female students is simple, if bitterly ironic: From the early grades on up, girls tend to be better students. By the time college admissions come into the picture, many watchers of the “boy gap” agree, it’s too late for the lads to catch up on their own. Indeed, beginning in those formative K-12 years, girls watch less television, spend less time playing sports, and are far less likely to find themselves in detention. They are more likely to participate in drama, art, and music classesâ€”extracurriculars that are catnip for admissions officers. Across the board, girls study more, score better, and are less likely to find themselves in special education classes.